The Erosion of Source Protection

Maintaining confidentiality in investigative journalism is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. Journalists who would once risk imprisonment in order to protect a sources identity are now “being undercut by surveillance”.

Most journalists of a high status worry that sources will fear approaching them with information as they are aware that the journalist is under surveillance. Umar Cheema, Co-founder of Pakistan’s Centre for Investigative Reporting says, “I am a prominent journalist, a distinction with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some [sources] tend to approach me out of respect and belief that I am the right person to be taken into confidence. Others hesitate, fearing any contact with me will put them on [the] radar screen since I am under surveillance, right from phone to emails, and [my] social media accounts are monitored.”

The free speech of journalists is under attack, and not just the journalists right to speak, but also the audience’s right to hear what the journalist has to say.
Journalist Justin Quill says, “…attacking journalists seeking disclosure of their sources is attacking your right to know.”

Journalists are becoming more restricted with the information they can release to the public. Most of the information released by journalists is usually received by sources wishing to remain anonymous. However, with an increase in surveillance on investigative journalists, source protection is being eroded, this  consequently limits what information the public consumes.

Over the years a number of reporters have been threatened with jail time, or even jailed, for failing to name their anonymous source.
In July 2005, The New York Times Judith Miller, was sentenced to serve 12 weeks in Alexandria Detention Centre in Virginia for civil contempt of court due to refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source. Before being taken into custody, Miller told Federal Judge Thomas Hogan, “If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.”
Judge Hogan later stated that the journalistic tradition of accepting jail time rather than betraying sources, does not deserve respect. However, the Executive Editor of the times, Bill Keller, disagreed.

[Judith Miller speaking about her jail time for refusing to name a confidential source]

Courtney Radsch, Global Advocacy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, stated, “I think that we are really potentially looking at an environment where it becomes virtually impossible for journalists to protect their sources – where journalists are no longer even needed in that equation, given governments’ broad surveillance powers.”

Below is an article about Miller’s jail time, posted by the New York Times:


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